Monday, July 13, 2009

Theater Review: South Pacific

Location: Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official South Pacific site

Starring: Laura Osnes, David Pittsinger, Danny Burstein, Andrew Samonsky, Loretta Ables Sayre

My Review: It would be easy to dismiss a musical primarily about racial intolerance during World War II as irrelevant in this day and age, but just spend an hour with the bigot of your family (and every family has at least one) and you know that intolerance still thrives today, it’s just a not as loudly displayed as it once was. It’s also easy to classify all Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals as cheesy or “theater lite,” but you must be forgetting that Oklahoma! has attempted murder, The Sound of Music has Nazis, and Carousel is just one big bag of sadness and despair with a catchy soundtrack; they’re not all about beautiful mornings and raindrops on roses. So while my initial reaction when hearing there was going to be a Broadway revival of South Pacific was, “Really? That show?,” I was thrilled to see that the production playing at Lincoln Center is both relevant and not cheesy, and just all around enjoyable.

The story revolves around two would-be love affairs on a small island in the South Pacific during WWII. The primary one involves Navy nurse Nellie, a self-pronounced hick from Little Rock, who instantly falls for the older and more sophisticated Frenchman Emile when he shows up to an officer’s dance. He now owns and lives on a plantation on the island after being forced to flee his native France for killing a man, which Nellie accepts as being OK because he tells her it is. But the fact that he has two mixed raced children by a now deceased island woman is enough to make her back off the relationship and his once enticing offer to marry him and join him on the island. The lesser love story involves Lt. Joseph Cable, a pompous Princeton graduate from Philadelphia, who, despite his obviously low opinion of the islanders, falls in love with the beautiful and naïve Liat, who happens to be the daughter of Bloody Mary, a shrewd (and somewhat scary) local woman who revels in taking the money of the seamen stationed there for such delicacies as grass skirts and shrunken heads. Once she has successfully presented her daughter to Cable, Mary insists that they must marry, a demand that goes against everything Cable was ever taught back home, causing heartache for everyone involved in the match.

Laura Osnes is currently playing Nellie while original cast member Kelli O’Hara is on maternity leave, but the night I went I actually saw Ms. Osnes’ understudy, Laura Marie Duncan. But if I hadn’t read the Playbill insert that said she was an understudy, I never would have guessed. She holds her own throughout the show and plays Nellie with a perfect blend of youthful optimism, immature uncertainty, and small town naivety. And she has her comedic timing well tuned during the “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and “Honey Bun” numbers. As her French paramour, Emile, an actor with a booming baritone voice is needed to properly convey the emotion behind “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine,” and David Pittsinger was a great casting choice. Primarily an opera performer, he belts out Emile’s signature songs flawlessly, but is also impressive when not singing and seamlessly portraying Emile as a man who makes no apologies for his past and has happened to fall in love with a girl from small town America with prejudices even she doesn’t understand.

Also standouts in the cast are the supporting, and more comical, roles of Luther Billis and Bloody Mary. Billis, played by Danny Burstein, is one of the sailors stationed on the island who is determined to take full advantage of his time there, whether it means finding a way to get to Bali Ha’i—the mysterious island where all your fantasies come true, which he is forbidden to visit—or conning local woman Bloody Mary into buying the wares that he and his fellow sailors create. Unfortunately for him, Mary is a far more shrewd businessman, and manages to turn his opportunistic offers around on him by presenting exotic items Billis can’t resist. Played by Loretta Ables Sayre, Bloody Mary knows how to expertly play all island visitors to her advantage, whether it mean clowning with the sailors to get them to buy what she pedals, or seducing the “sexy Lieutenant” into coming to Bali Ha’i where she plots to have him marry her daughter. Both Billis and Mary first appear merely as clowns to provide the comic relief in South Pacific, but as the show continues, you see hidden depths in them as Billis struggles to put his schoolboy crush on Nellie aside once he realizes how she really feels about Emile and Mary rails against Lt. Cable, declaring she will marry her daughter off to a cruel man if he won’t marry her himself.

The biggest weak point in South Pacific is the performance of Lt. Cable by Andrew Samonsky. When Cable first arrives on the island, overly cocky and self-assured, Samonsky nails it. But when he falls in love with Liat, there isn’t enough of a visible struggle. Rather than seeming like a man who is pitting what he feels in his heart up against what’s been ingrained in him since childhood, he still comes across as cocky and self-assured, but just a bit more whiny on top of it. Samonsky’s singing voice leaves a lot to be desired, too, as his performances of “Younger than Springtime” and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” are thin and unconvincing. The role of Lt. Cable is small enough that his performance can’t bring down the entire show, but it is significant enough that the effect of this one weak link is palpable.

Bottom Line: South Pacific may qualify as an old-fashioned musical, but when it’s as expertly presented as this, it doesn’t seem dated at all. And the theater at Lincoln Center manages to put other Broadway theaters to shame. The stage is thrust into the audience, so at times you feel as though you’re a part of it all, and during the overture and the second act entr’acte, the stage slides back to reveal the zealous orchestra performing below stage. Seeing how excited they are to be under the stage, you can’t help but feel just as excited to be there, too.

1 comment:

  1. As many of theatre lovers I LOVE the musical South Pacific ! It is my favourite ever...I've seen it in New York and next week I’m going to visit my sister and I just got some pretty good tickets via:
    So I'll be analyzing as well as enjoying the show.